Ominous ties are emerging between skyrocketing sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria's civil war. Analysts say al-Qaida-linked militants are flowing back and forth from both countries and are seeking to use religious differences to bring down the government, not only in Damascus, but also in Baghdad.
Iraqis are witnessing the worst violence to rock their country in five years.
Bombings and other attacks against Sunni Muslim and Shi’ite targets are stoking sectarian tensions.
One major reason is the civil war next door in Syria.
“It is no accident that we are seeing more bombings in Iraq now because of the money and the weapons that are going to the Syrian Free Army, some factions of which are aligned with al-Qaida,” said Douglas Ollivant of the New America Foundation.
Amateur video posted online shows rebel fighters in Syria from the al-Nusra Front pledging allegiance to al-Qaida.
The group receives support from al-Qaida in Iraq, and militants frequently cross the porous Iraqi-Syrian border.
“The Iraqis are scared to death about the backlash and the back flow of some of these militants and al-Qaida related groups,” said Michael Rubin, who is with the American Enterprise Institute.
Rubin calls Syria an underground railroad for militants to get into Iraq.
In 2006-2007, tens of thousands of Iraqis died in sectarian conflict, but this time there are no U.S. troops to help quell the violence.
For months, Iraq’s minority Sunnis have staged anti-government demonstrations.
Some say the success of Syrian rebels has given them confidence to challenge what they say is discrimination and abuse by Iraq's Shi’ite-led government.
“As this moment could be leading us to a war, it could also encourage a lot of decision makers to think seriously for the first time about sharing power, security responsibilities and wealth,” said Sarmad al-Taie, an Iraqi analyst.
As the carnage continues, some Sunni leaders say the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are now intertwined.
“Well one way of trying to give Iraq breathing room is to help the fighting in Syria end. The longer it lingers there the more danger it is to Iraq," said Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
But the conflict in Syria shows no sign of ending soon, and Iraqi leaders are worried other countries may be involved in encouraging sectarian attacks.
“The return of these people is an investment in the political instability that has led to instability of society, due to sectarianism that is linked this time with agendas beyond our borders,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki has ordered a shakeup of senior government security officials, but fears of more sectarian violence continue.